Retro review–Gregory Mcdonald’s novel that began it all, Fletch

Review by C.J. Bunce

When you hear the word Fletch, you probably first think of the 1985 movie with Chevy Chase’ s humorous, over-the-top take on undercover newspaper reporter I.M. Fletcher.  But Fletch was based on the first of several award-winning mystery novels by author Gregory Mcdonald.  Mcdonald wrote dozens of novels before his death in 2008, but Fletch was one of his first, and it would win Mcdonald the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, and its sequel, Confess, Fletch (adapted into a movie last year, reviewed here) would win Mcdonald a second Edgar.  I reviewed a later work by the author, the kidnap caper Snatched, here at borg when it was reprinted on its 30th anniversary.  Snatched is a great read.  Its slow, simmering pace reflects nailbiters of the 1960s-1970s like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Charley Varrick, Magnum Force, or Bullitt.  It also showed great improvement over his earlier work.  Fletch is a good read, but it also is a creature of the times and reflects an up-and-coming author early in his career.

In the crime fiction genre, Fletch is more hard-boiled crime story than noir.  It was written on the heels of Watergate and the success of Woodward and Bernstein’s thrilling All the President’s Men, so it makes sense a young writer would gain traction with a journalist anti-hero like I.M. Fletcher aka Fletch.  Mcdonald’s writing also reflects the kind of heroes 1970s audiences were reading, like Peter Benchley’s beachfront sheriff in Jaws, and the troubled heroes of Michael Crichton’s early med school era novels.  Despite 14 sequels and spin-off novels, Mcdonald’s sleuth didn’t get as much exposure as Ian Fleming’s spy, but his writing in Fletch reflects the misogyny of Benchley, early Crichton, and Fleming.  Some of that goes with the genre, back to Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer.  More of it reflects the 1970s.

Fletch the character is different from previous journalist protagonists, not seen before in pulp novels or the comics pages.  Fletch sleeps with an underage girl, who dies of an overdose, and Fletch, too, takes drugs.  Mcdonald throws the idea of his protagonist being a hero out the window early on–Fletch (off the page) threw his ex-wife’s cat out a seven-story window.  He’s not a likable fellow in several ways, so it’s astonishing that the character that made it to the movies starring Chevy Chase reflects a funnyman audiences could actually cheer for.

Mcdonald had a stint working at newspapers that he infuses into this story, but ultimately it’s difficult to find Fletch as any kind of legitimate journalist.  He’s evidently supposed to be something like John Belushi’s reporter Ernie Souchak in Continental Divide (the movies came out back to back).   We’re to understand his arrogance comes from some kind of experience in the field, yet nearly everyone who encounters him comments on hating his stories.  Perhaps it’s more about perpetuating the reporter stereotype.

For those that have seen the movie before coming to the novel, note that the movie follows the framework of the novel probably 90 percent or more.  Fletch is undercover on The Beach, trying to find the source of an ever-growing drug business.  The key to the whodunnit for Fletch is watching who the cops pick up and who they don’t.

Surprisingly, the novel contains only two mystery plot threads.  To fill 341 pages, Mcdonald has Fletch repeat a lot–first the reader sees what happens, then Fletch repeats it to others, then Fletch records it in his own journalist note-taking style.  It’s pretty easy to decipher both plots early on, but Mcdonald unveils more and more clues so even the unsophisticated reader will be sure to have a handle on both mysteries by the big reveals at novel’s end.

That second thread is what actually kicks off the novel in its opening words, and probably why Mcdonald’s story was quickly bought off the shelves of 1970s bookstores.  While Fletch is undercover as just another druggie on The Beach, a wealthy local CEO named Alan Stanwyk propositions Fletch to accept tens of thousands of dollars (the exact amount Fletch negotiates later) to kill him.  So Fletch’s second story is figuring out why Stanwyk wants to commit suicide in such a strange manner, and this becomes the more interesting thread.  Fletch travels around the country (a financial impossibility for a field journalist as Fletch is described in his day) interviewing everyone in Stanwyk’s life.

In true 1970s crime novel style, the investigation includes bedding Stanwyk’s boring wife, the curiously named Joan Collins (the actress was already quite famous by then).  But Mcdonald tests out some humor via Fletch’s dialogue, especially through the repeated use of absurd, over-the-top, fake names, which Mcdonald takes to the extreme–a component Chase’s Fletch would become known for.  Would audiences have loved the Fletch movie if Chase hadn’t already laid the groundwork for his charismatic sleuth in Foul Play?  Jon Hamm, star of Confess, Fletch, was probably more like Mcdonald’s vision, yet the result was so bland.  It takes some effort to stick with Mcdonald’s Fletch.

In truth the movie’s screenplay by Andrew Bergman and Phil Alden Robinson is a vast improvement on Mcdonald’s story, better edited and with much wittier dialogue.  That makes sense considering these two were the writers of iconic films Blazing Saddles, The Freshman, Sneakers, and Field of Dreams.  The novel has no newspaper assistant Larry (Geena Davis’s great supporting character in the movie)–a good addition–and the movie dropped the odd relationship of Fletch’s newspaper boss (worth eliminating).  Sidebar antics involving Fletch’s two ex-wives takes up more unnecessary space in the novel, although a scheme to dupe the women into living together is the novel’s best and funniest single scene.

The ending is tied up neatly for Fletch, who makes himself a millionaire, but it also seems like Mcdonald must have kicked himself after the first book’s success for cutting off so many options for the character.  Yet he delivered those 14 other novels, so he must figured something out.

Fletch is definitely a novel not to miss for collectors of key crime stories of the past, but it may be somewhat disappointing for those who love Chevy Chase in the lead role and saw the movie (and its sequel, Fletch Lives) first.  Available in several editions, Mcdonald’s novel Fletch is available here at Amazon.

One comment

  1. Like a lot of books I read when I was young, I’m sad it doesn’t hold up as I remember it.

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